The term agency may be simply defined as the capacity or ability of human beings to make choices. Agency is not the same as free will, which means that human beings are not only free to make choices but also free to act on their choices apart from outside influences. Agency acknowledges that although human beings are free to choose their actions, there are constraints on their actions. These constraints are the result of direct cause-and-effect relationships limiting choice as well as social, moral, religious, or circumstantial factors.

The doctrine of free will states that human beings are entirely free to choose any course of action. Agency states that although we are free to make our choices, we cannot choose our choices. This, in turn, differs from the doctrine of determinism, which states that our actions are more or less predetermined through cause-and-effect relationships, as in scientific determinism, or God’s will as in theological determinism. Thus, the scientist might suggest that each cause and effect determines the next cause and effect, and so forth; people merely think and act on the previous effect. The theologian might suggest that God predetermined each situation and each participant’s action in that situation. The scientist would see the restraints on action as the product of genetics, early experience, or social forces. Agency would regard these factors as mere influences rather than determinants. Free will would consider such factors as merely present, one being free to act according to one’s will regardless of the situational variables.

As stated, although agency acknowledges free choice, the concept acknowledges the existence of constraints on choice. Among those constraints are the effects of knowing that one is being watched, or surveilled. Particularly in public settings, many people will restrain their free will, avoiding actions that could cause embarrassment, harassment, or even arrest. Many people, again, are far more willing to exercise less restraint in private settings. Even in private settings, however, the introduction of the knowledge or even the suspicion of surveillance by outside persons will likely change the behavior of private actors to protect themselves and their privacy. In short, knowing or suspecting that one is being watched may exert a powerful influence on one’s behavior and choices.

To further understand agency with regard to social factors, including surveillance and privacy, this entry discusses how the concept has been applied in theology, philosophy, and sociology, as well as its role in moral agency and accountability.

Theology and Philosophy

Judaism and most Christian sects base their theology, particularly with regard to punishment, human or divine, on a foundation of agency rather than free will or determinism. Human beings are free to act, subject to certain constraints, and are thus accountable for their actions, with perhaps at least some consideration being given to circumstances as mitigating factors. For example, in Mosaic Law, a person who intentionally murders an innocent is to be executed; the killer made a choice and must be held accountable for that choice. If extenuating circumstances existed, such as self-defense or accident, the choice to kill was not freely made but was made in terms of agency: freedom to choose limited by circumstances. Thus, the one who killed in self-defense is not held accountable as a murderer.

Although many philosophical systems spend little time in dwelling on the nature of agency, free will, or determinism, both Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx regarded agency as important human activity limited, but not controlled, by the social forces of one’s time and place. Thus, Hegel built on an idea of the Ancient Greeks with his belief in a weltgeist, or “world spirit,” referring to the forces of history and the effect of those forces on societies and individuals. The idea of a zeitgeist, or “spirit of the times,” would seem to follow logically; the spirit of one’s times affects one’s reality, one’s perception of reality, and therefore one’s actions. Marx believed one’s actions to be limited by one’s class but, building on Hegel, developed the idea of “universal class”—the class that at a particular time was poised to most influence human events for universal human progress.


The Marxist and Hegelian ideas of geist and universal class are very close to core ideas in sociology, where the concepts of agency and social structure have formed a foundational debate of the discipline. Specifically, understanding the effects of structure (e.g., social class, race, gender) on agency, the ability to choose one’s actions, is vital to the discipline. That is, sociology rests on discussion of the limiting effects of society on the individual’s ability to make and act on choices.

Moral Agency

The discussion thus far leads to the concept of moral agency or accountability. As referenced in theology, philosophy, and sociology, in terms of justice it would seem important to determine to what degree human beings are responsible for their decisions and actions as well as the degree to which they be rewarded or punished for those actions. In strictly theological terms, although one has agency, one must always act in accord with the revealed law of God, however one may understand it. Violating God’s law is an act of agency, and one is accountable to God for such acts.

In secular terms, it must be considered that humans possess not only agency but also reason. The question then shifts from the nature (or even existence) of agency and the effects of circumstances on agency to the ability of the individual to rationally choose from the available alternatives. David Hume suggested, in effect, that humans use reason to perform a cost-benefit analysis to choose the alternative most generous to themselves; in effect, humans will always choose from selfishness as selfishness is supremely rational. Hume believed that moral judgment is a myth and that both agency and reason were purely survival mechanisms. Immanuel Kant, conversely, believed that humans must reason based not only on circumstances but also on principles. According to Kant, reason must include careful attention to the interests of others as well as one’s own self-interest. To be moral, one must place the interests of others at least on a par with self-interest, implying that true morality requires self-sacrifice.

Although the Humean and Kantian perspectives are largely irreconcilable, both perspectives acknowledge personal responsibility as well as accountability to other individuals and to society as a whole. Both perspectives, then, see individual reason and society as limits on agency.

Not all human beings reason well. Experience, maturity, education, and intelligence are factors in the reasoning process. Following logically the ideas of Hume and Kant, inexperience and immaturity would be limiting factors in agency. Persons with limited mental and experiential resources would accrue less moral responsibility than those not so limited. Children, for example, are not credited with the same moral judgment as adults, and their agency is limited by the internal and external variables inherent in childhood.


Agency is the concept that human beings are free to choose courses of action subject to the limitations of personal and social factors. Personal limitations would include things such as conscience (a sense of personal moral responsibility) and cognitive ability. Social factors would include socioeconomic status and the prevailing social ethos of one’s time and place. The existence of agency implies moral responsibility mitigated by personal and social factors and suggests the need for a formal system of justice to determine responsibility based on these factors.

M. George Eichenberg

See also Choice: Security or Civil Liberties ; Morality ; Responsibility

Further Readings

Bandura, Albert. “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective.” Annual Review of Psychology, v.52 (2001).

Bok, Hilary. Freedom and Responsibility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Cohen, G. A., et al. “Historical Inevitability and Human Agency in Marxism” [and Discussion]. Proceedings of the Royal Society (1986). (Accessed August 2017).

Fischer, John and Mark Ravizza. Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. (Accessed August 2017).

Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. (Accessed August 2017).

Moore, Michael. Placing Blame. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Pippin, Robert. (2008). Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008.